The Yanomami are one of Brazil’s largest indigenous groups. Of the estimated 40,000 Yanomami, around two-thirds live in Brazil in varying degrees of isolation (the rest in neighbouring Venezuela). Their homeland is protected by a presidential decree which, in 1992, recognised them as rightful owners of a vast swath of forest, stretching across two northern states, Roraima and Amazonas. This land covers 9.7 million hectares, an area the size of Portugal.
The demarcation of these lands was a major victory. During the 1970s, many Yanomami communities faced a devastating influx of disease as construction of a transcendental highway in the Amazon, initiated by Brazil’s military government, opened up the region to deforestation. Whole communities were annihilated at this time, while the influx of outsiders threatened their culture. Though now legally protected, the Yanomami are still under threat. This rich land, covered by forest, is increasingly targeted by illegal mining, logging and agricultural companies. President Jair Bolsonaro has made it plain that he would see the land opened up to these interests.
It seems only appropriate to start with the Yanomami’s story when writing about the new photographic exhibition Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle, coming to the Berbican this June. Though the exhibition is as much about the photographer – Andujar – as her subjects, it is clear enough from the information that lines the walls, the video testimony, and the details of Andujar’s political activism, that this artist and journalist (now age 89) would see the Yanomami as the topic of import here.
Nevertheless, Andujar’s story is also fascinating. Born in Switzerland in 1931, she grew up in a Transylvania only just incorporated into Romania. During WWII, Andujar’s father, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Dachau along with many of her paternal relatives. She never saw any of them again. Andujar later immigrated to the United States with her mother and eventually moved to Brazil in 1955 where she began a career as a photojournalist.
What exactly inspired Andujar to journey into the Amazon and, with no language skills to speak of, try to befriend and photograph the Yanomami people isn’t exactly clear – though she has since commented that her difficult childhood influenced her desire to help others survive. Whatever impulse drove her, she was to spend the next 50 years documenting Yanomami culture, forging a deep connection with communities and eventually making life-long friends. At several points in her career she spent long periods living with the Yanomami, sometimes for up to a year at a time. This exhibition is the result of four year’s research of the photographer’s archive and brings together more than 300 photographs as well as Yanomami drawings.
There is a clear divide to this work. On the ground floor, Andujar’s photographs from the early 1970s are art. Her portrayal of the Yanomami at this time was not an exercise in photojournalism and wasn’t intended to be. Using experimental techniques, such as rubbing Vaseline onto the lens of her camera, using flash devices, oil lamps and infrared film, she created distorted, otherworldly images, offering hints of Yanomami lives rather than clarity.
Most striking here are images of Yanomami rituals and feasts known as ‘reahu’. During these events the Yanomami undergo a range of traditions, including inhaling the hallucinogenic yakoana – considered a way to commune with the spirits. Some of these photos are graphic. A man lies on the floor, his mouth foaming, having passed out from the experience.
The question arises, as it always does at these kinds of exhibitions, as to whether what we’re viewing – we covered-up Westerners in smart clothes – is appropriate. Is there a point to this sneak peak into another culture? Is it harmless, respectful curiosity, or is it an intrusion, verging on voyeuristic? These questions are heightened by the fact that the Yanomami do not, as a rule, like to have their picture taken.
There is a clear awareness of these questions here. Davi Kopenawa, a shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami Indians, has written the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. Kopenawa sets out his reasoning for welcoming this stranger and her photographs. ‘I did not know how to fight against politicians, against the non-indigenous people,’ he writes. ‘It was good that she gave me the bow and arrow, not for killing Whites but for speaking in defence of the Yanomami people. It is very important for all of you to see the work she did…Those who do not know the Yanomami will know them through these images.’
On a tour of the exhibition when it was shown at the Fondation Cartier Paris in 2020, assistant curator Valentina Tong, also explained that ‘every time images are shown, there is a negotiation with the Yanomami. They understand that it has a political cause. Only by knowing their culture can it be protected.’ Though she adds that: ‘Our goal is here is to present the problem not solve it.’
Andujar’s goal however, went further. In 1978, she founded, with the missionary Carlo Zacquini and the anthropologist Bruce Albert, the Commissao Pro-Yanomami (CCPY) and began a fourteen-year campaign to designate the Yanomami homeland. Travelling through the entire region, she helped implement healthcare programmes and assisted in gathering testimonies, medical records and demographic surveys. The artist put aside her visual project and used photography to raise awareness – a decision that resulted in her being physically removed from the Yanomami territory in 1977 by the Brazilian government. In this section are photographs of incursion into Yanomami lands, depiction of the sick and dying, as well as the influx of modernisation (a young Yanomami man holds up a picture of western pornography).
Most striking is a series of black and white portraits, taken as part of a vaccination campaign. Because Yanomami people have several names and do not like to be identified by one single moniker, they were given numbers to wear around their necks for identification purposes. The resulting portraits are arresting and slightly discomforting. Andujar herself was struck by the way these numbers recalled the numerical tattoos forced upon Jews during Holocaust. Though the Yanomami numbers were designed to aid survival – the very opposite of the brands employed by the Nazis – it is clearly a difficult series for the photographer and a thought-provoking one for the viewer.
Taken as a whole, all of these photos encapsulate a remarkable body of work – the project of a lifetime. In a video, a frail and elderly Andujar returns to the Amazon (in an ill-suited wheel chair) where she is greeted by friends from a Yanomami community. It is in some ways a bizarre confluence of cultures and peoples, but one that appears welcome to both sides.
Though Andujar is still fighting on, the viewer feels that she has done her work for this cause. As new threats emerge, others must now step up and continue the fight, as many Yanomami people are already doing.
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